February 2010


We are familiar with the enduring words of this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them… They will build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:1-2, 8 )

For the next fifteen chapters–over a third of the book of Exodus–the Torah will elaborate the details of the mishkan, the tent that enables God to live among the Israelites. For the ancient rabbis of the Talmud, the mishkan was both signified and signifier: a home for God, but also the symbolic focal point for understanding what it means to be human in the world. Linguistically, these chapters bear a close relationship with the opening chapter of Genesis; substantively, they are framed by the concept of Shabbat, on which it is forbidden to build the mishkan. And thus for the Rabbis, the work of building the mishkan was analagous with the work of creating the world–it is the human conterpart to the divine work of Genesis.

One of the midrashim on these opening verses helps us to appreciate how truly radical this concept is. The midrash begins by quoting a verse from Song of Songs: “I slept, but my heart was awake, when I heard my lover knocking and calling. “Open to me, my treasure, my darling, my dove, my perfect one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”” (5:2).

The midrash unpacks this verse in light of the mishkan, weaving together the words of Song of Songs with the words of the Torah portion: “The house of Israel says, ‘I have grown weary (I sleep) from my long exile, but the Holy One (who is called “my heart”) is still awake. I despair (I sleep) from from my failure to uphold the commandments, but the merit of my ancestors stands in my stead, and my heart awakes. I despair (I sleep) from the sin of the Golden Calf, but the Holy One knocks for me, saying, ‘Take for me an offering, Open to me, my treasure, my darling. How long will I walk without a home? My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night. So make Me a sanctuary, so that I do not have to dwell outside.'” (Shemot Rabbah 33:3)

In this midrash, the people of Israel despair over their failures and shortcomings. Most notably, the midrash positions the building of the mishkan after the sin of the Golden Calf (which in the Torah happens in the middle of the account of the mishkan; the order of events is the subject of a long debate among the commentators). Yet God’s answer is not only forgiveness, but seeking encounter. God commands the Israelites to create a home for God not only in spite of, but perhaps in answer to, their human frailties and failings. Not only does God need a home, which is radical enough (You created the world, but You can’t create a home for yourself?!), but God asks the Israelites to create that home even after they have rebelled against God!

In an excellent recent book, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the mishkan is a blueprint for community-building. Even after all the miracles of the Exodus, even after the revelation at Sinai, what truly binds the people together is the act of creating something as a community–the act of shared contribution and building. The midrash reminds us of this, and how desperately both we and God need that experience, sharing in the act of creation. That is the fulfillment of our role as tzelem elohim, God’s images on earth.

Shabbat shalom.

A friend, familiar with my interests in higher education, religion, secularism, and Jews, sent me this piece by Yoram Hazony this morning. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, mostly because Hazony is elaborating some points that I have made on this blog and in my other writing and speaking over the last several years. His central thesis and mine are the same: Jews need to think much more critically about the university as a whole, because it is the institution of the university–the modern, secular, elite research university that we send most of our kids to–that shapes the identity of so many Jews.

Hazony puts it very well: universities determine what is acceptable, what is respectable, what are the bounds of knowledge and opinion. They may not make everyone share the same ideology, but they create the parameters of what we like to tell ourselves is “critical thinking.” But what Hazony and I both ask is: Is that really true? Given that the modern secular university writes off whole areas of knowledge–particularly knowledge that comes from religious traditions, and certainly knowledge that claims to be revealed–how wide are the goal posts of critical thinking? (See this article in Newsweek for an example.)

At this point, Hazony’s project and mine diverge slightly. At least as it’s presented in his piece, his primary interest in raising these questions is on behalf of the Jewish people. The central question, in Hazony’s mind, is this: “Whether the universities, which are modern society’s engines for the discovery of truth, can be changed so as to accommodate the ideas and texts of Judaism as a legitimate source for potentially true ‘ideas and principles.'” I definitely share this question and concern. But my question–perhaps because I’m sitting in America and not in Israel–is whether our universities can be changed so as to accommodate and promote knowledge in all the dimensions of human life–including the religio-spiritual, as well as the ethical-moral, and not only the empirical-historicist that we seem to dwell in right now.

I ask this question on behalf of my people, the Jews, but also on behalf of American society and the world, because I think that the hegemony of rigid secularism on university campuses has contributed to the erosion of our public life, the fragmentation of our commons, and the lack of resilience that it takes for good people to stay in the game. (See this morning’s NYT article about Evan Bayh for a good example of how hard it is for good people to stick it out.) One of the driving forces behind our starting askbigquestions.com was the belief that our mission in Hillel will only be successful if we can change the nature of the university itself, and make it a more hospitable place for people of all backgrounds to engage the most profound questions of human life in dialogue with all of the world’s sources of knowledge and wisdom.

A final note: On Tuesday night I facilitated a conversation at Hillel on these topics with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL. In preparing for the session, I recalled a talk I gave a couple of years ago (print version here, audio here) contextualizing Jews and the university. A lot of Hazony’s points are made in that talk. And while I doubt very much that Yoram Hazony and Brad Hirschfield are mentioned all that frequently in the same sentence, on this score I think we are all in agreement: We think it is both highly desirable, and eminently possible, for our universities to recover their souls, and to do so in a way that not only preserves, but expands the meaning of “critical thinking.”

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of representing the Jewish tradition at the annual dinner of the Niagara Foundation, alongside Bishop Demetrius of the Chicago Greek Orthodox Church and Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Parliament of World Religions. We were asked to give short remarks about charity in each of our traditions. My speech is below.

The Particularities of Giving: Reflections on Tzedakah
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Niagara Foundation Dinner
January 28, 2010

I must begin tonight by thanking the Niagara Foundation for the honor of speaking to you. When I was approached a few months ago about this opportunity, Hakan told me about the Foundation and about the dinner. He explained that the custom is to have a figure from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism speak. And he told me that Bishop Demetrius would be speaking, that Imam Abdul would be speaking—both of whom bear significant titles, and then he asked if I would represent Judaism. I must confess to feeling a bit hutzpadik, a bit presumptuous, in attempting to represent what John Goodman, in the movie The Big Lebowski, colorfully referred to as “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.” But I will do my best.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.

“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

Judaism of course mandates charity, between 10 and 20 percent of one’s annual income. But, significantly, the term we employ for our practice is not charity, based as it is in the Latin caritas, meaning love or affection. Our term is rather tzedakah, rooted in the word tzedek, which connotes righteousness or justice. To give in Jewish tradition is not an act of grace on the part of the giver to demonstrate love of one’s fellow—though we refer to our brethren as acheinu, our brothers. Rather giving tzedakah is fundamentally a fulfillment of a divine commandment, a mitzvah, to redress the inequities inherent in an unredeemed world.

In my short time with you tonight, I want to focus on one particularly modern aspect of tzedakah-giving, namely how we approach the question of tzedakah for Jewish causes, and tzedakah to support our non-Jewish neighbors. (more…)